For the last 18 months, Denver Post staffer Chuck Plunkett's beat has been next week's Democratic National Convention and the logistical preparations his city has been making to host it.
Plunkett, an Arkansas native, is a former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter who earned his masters in fiction writing at Pitt. He moved to Denver about five years ago and was working on The Post's investigative desk when he was assigned to cover the convention that starts Monday and will draw at least 50,000 visitors. I called my friend and former colleague Wednesday to find out if Denver is prepared for what one civic booster told USA Today was "the biggest event in the history of the city":
Q: Is Denver ready for the Democrats?
A: I think it's as ready as it could be. There aren't any huge lingering holes in their preparations that I see.
Q: What was the biggest problem the city has had to deal with?
A: The Denver Host Committee is the nonprofit organization that was formed to host the convention. Its main responsibility, above all else, is to raise the millions and millions of dollars in private cash donations that the Democratic National Convention Committee has to have to put this thing on.
The host committee has now raised the $40.6 million it agreed to raise and an additional $11 million in donated goods and services that was required of it. Because Barack Obama moved his acceptance speech outdoors to Invesco Field at Mile High, they have to raise an additional $4 million to $6 million more. They say they will have that done with a little bit of mop up into next week.
In trying to meet their money-raising obligations, the host committee had some problems. They were $11 million behind in fundraising in June, their last deadline, so they had to scrap two dozen parties at prime Denver locations that they had been planning for months and months and months for all the delegations that come. There are 56 delegations, and the host committee is required to welcome them all on the opening Sunday. It's supposed to be a chance to showcase the city and that kind of thing. But due to the lack of money, they had to scrap all of that and consolidate it down into one big party on Sunday for 6,000 delegates and guests.
Q: What will the convention cost the taxpayers of Denver?
A: It's supposed to not cost anything. The host committee -- short of the fact that they can't have all those welcoming parties -- is ready. They've got their money. They've got their volunteers -- twice as many as the 10,000 volunteers that they needed. But then there's what the city has to do, and the city has to provide security. It's working with two-dozen other outside agencies and it won a federal grant -- like the Republicans will have for their convention -- for $50 million to refund the overtime and all the expenses and the equipment and the training that it takes to have the police at the convention. That money is all secured. They have it. The training has been done. The officers have been picked and set up. They say they are going to be ready to build the security perimeter around the Pepsi Center and later at Invesco Field. The Secret Service and FBI bring on all kinds of extra people. And the TSA brings in magnometers to scan people as they go through the perimeters. It appears all that has been set.
Q: How will this benefit the city and will it be a net plus or a net minus?
A: If it all goes smoothly, it seems like it could be a big plus. Denver now gets to say that it's now on a par with a Chicago or an L.A. or a Boston in hosting what is really an international event. They can say, "We won't just be flyover country any more." If it doesn't go well, if there are lots of logistical problems, or if protesters cause trouble and police react in a bad way, it really could give the city a black eye. It'd make us look like a mean-spirited town or a town that can't handle a big crowd or whatever.
They claim, using different economic models, that with the convention and the 50,000 guests who are coming -- which include the media, the delegates and Democratic VIPs -- that you'll get a direct economic impact of $160 million. But they had big projections like that in Boston and there are reports that say the direct impact is actually far less because those projections didn't factor in what the city would have made anyway during that time period. So it'll be interesting to watch to see how much direct bounce we get. But you know, boosters here say that even if it is just breakeven, as long as it is perceived as a successful event, it will have lasting value for quite some time.
Q: You lived in Pittsburgh off and on for six years. Can you imagine Pittsburgh hosting a presidential nominating convention?
A: I think so. Pittsburgh is even smaller than Denver, but you guys have an awful lot of big companies. Denver lacks Fortune 500 companies, and that was one of the reasons it was hard to raise the money. But last I remember, Pittsburgh still has quite a few. If your Pittsburgh host committee formed, it would immediately be able to go to some of those groups that donate to prop up the city. If there was one thing I thought Pittsburgh did well, it was to promote itself.
Q: What big, important front-page stories have you been writing about?
A: I focused early on the problems raising the money. During that time period -- when they had to cancel the parties -- was the first kind of public flare up we saw between the Democratic National Convention Committee and the host committee. Denver wanted to these extra things, because they want to make sure that people come into the area and see what's going on downtown and not "stay away in droves." So Denver was trying to raise money on the side for these other kinds of civic events and the Democrat National Convention Committee reigned them in. That was pretty big.
The move to Ivesco Field also generated a lot of news stories. That's an enormous event that is generating a huge amount of excitement. How those tickets are going to be distributed to ordinary people who are grass-roots supporters of Barack Obama and others has been an important story for us. We have followed the security angle closely, to the degree we can -- how that money gets spent on equipment and overtime and whatnot. The protestor angle has been a recurring story -- who's coming, what they're going to do.
Q: Is the city well-prepared for street demonstrators?
A: The mayor says that he believes that they are and that the police are going to go out of their way to respect people's right to free speech and whatnot. But if they see someone preparing to cause trouble, they are going to sweep in with I guess overwhelming force to stop that from happening. A group that is going to assemble here called Unconventional Denver are the same kind of anarchists who sacked Seattle (in street riots during the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999).
We know that bad actors are coming and we know that they just need something to retaliate against. The mayor says he has talked to all the protest people who are mainly interested in a nonviolent, non-destructive protest, because they want to get their message out in a very positive, creative way. He claims that if they see the police storming in to stop a group of bad actors that they are going to get out of the way and not resist and let it be taken care of quickly. So -- (laughs) -- we'll have to see if all those plans are well laid.
Q: What's the funniest thing that's happened?
A: When they cancelled those parties, that was pretty absurd. Those poor people had been spending months and months preparing those parties -- "We're going to showcase Denver. We are going to show you the crown jewels that Denver has to offer -- the Denver Botanic Garden, and the zoo, the Red Rocks amphitheater. We're going to have all these parties at Denver's premier locations so that the eyes of the world and all these delegates that come are going to see Denver at its finest." All the caterers were getting hired and everyone was sharpening up the knives and forks and polishing the silverware and then suddenly it all got cut -- just swish, swish, "Sorry, we don't have the money." So that was a pretty embarrassing story for the city.
Q: You were not really a political reporter when you started on this beat.
A: That's correct. This is the first time I've covered politics in a systematic way.
Q: What do you know now about big-time politics and how it works that you didn't know 18 months ago?
A: Oh. We could have a long talk about that. I'm reading economics now -- I'm reading Milton Friedman I'm re-evaluating every political thought I ever had.
Q: If you were writing a novel about the convention and the preparation for it, what would be the story line you'd use to pitch the book to your agent?
A: Well, this may not be good fiction, but it is an interesting story line: Can a city -- a mid-sized city with little more than a half a million people in it -- be expected to host these conventions in the future? The price of these conventions just continues to grow and grow and grow. The amount of private cash that has to be raised and the security money that has to come in is so staggering; think about these numbers: ultimately $51 million in total private money, plus $50 million worth of security money, plus another $16 million worth of federal money that goes to the Democratic National Convention Committee from the Federal Election Commission's public campaign finance fund. That's $120-some million you're talking about. Can cities like Denver and Pittsburgh really be expected to live up to that challenge?
Barack Obama -- oddly enough, or engagingly enough -- has said that he thinks in the future conventions should be funded differently. Right now you set up these host committees that operate like a chamber of commerce, so the FEC believes in the fiction that it's only to promote the city and not the party itself. Therefore it doesn't limit the size of the contribution that can be made, so a corporation can contribute $6 million to what is essentially a political event. Barack Obama is saying that should change in the future. So what do you do with that? If you change that and cut out the big money donors, when you have already seen how hard it is to generate the money even with them around, what's going to be the future of political conventions?